Opinion

Time to Rise Up – Against Robocalling

 

How many times has this happened to you? Your phone rings – home or mobile – and the number looks vaguely familiar so you answer the call.  It’s not a friend, family member, or a trusted place of business.  No, it’s a pre-recorded message of some sort. It’s a robocall.

Robocalls, those automated unsolicited sales calls, have been more than a minor annoyance for consumers for years.  Even after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) created the “Do Not Call” List (DNC), robocalls continue to plague consumers. With robocallers now targeting wireless devices – instead of just landline telephones – the unanticipated call from an unknown caller with an area code that seems somewhat familiar can take you away from your business and your family – and even more frightening, it can distract you when you’re driving.  It’s time for action!

Robocalling has long been a problem and a headache for consumers. In a recent Equities.com article, analyst Jeff Kagan highlighted an AT&T Public Policyblog that calls for a unified war that brings together consumers, industry, regulators, and legislators against a common enemy – robocallers. I echo this call for aggressive and robust action to end robocalls once and for all.

Robocalls have been an issue for decades despite regulatory, legislative, and industry efforts to alleviate the problem.

In 1991, Congress passed the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), restricting telephone solicitations and the use of automated telephone dialers. This was coupled with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) action with the passage of the Do Not Call (DNC) Implementation Act of 2003, which prohibited telemarketers from calling the landline telephones of consumers on the “Do Not Call” registry. To date, the FTC has brought more than 100 lawsuits against over 600 companies and individuals responsible for billions of illegal robocalls and other DNC Act violations.

But even with the DNC list and TCPA, robocalls still plague consumers today. While consumers were migrating from copper-based landline telephones to wireless devices and IP-based technologies, robocallers’ methods evolved too.

Over the years, new helpful products and services have emerged from technology companies and the wireless industry to combat the issue.

Nomorobo is a service that automatically blocks robocalls if the number of the caller is contained in its blacklist database. Nomorobo’s database of over 267,000 known robocallers was compiled with the help of the FTC, user reports, and “honey traps.” Services like Nomorobo can help reduce the number of unwanted calls a consumer receives, often up to 70% or 80%. Unfortunately, Nomorobo isn’t universally available to all consumers today, although the call-blocking service is working with landline and wireless carriers to change that.

Wireless service providers allow customers to block calls from specific numbers on their device, but with new technology robocallers can sometimes reroute their calls through more than one number.

So despite the availability of these new services, robocalls still remain a problem and many proposed solutions have fallen short for consumers.

With a recent uptick in the number of robocalls, efforts have begun to form a united front of industry stakeholders to eliminate these unwanted calls. The wireless industry has been actively working with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Enforcement Bureau to take down robocallers and has explored a variety of other initiatives to help consumers such as customer complaint portals and customer education programs. But more needs to be done.

The path forward needs collaboration on all fronts. As Kagan highlighted, AT&T’s call for an industry-wide approach to deal with the problem is a welcome first step. “Combatting these determined fraudsters requires a more holistic approach that goes beyond one-off, individual-company efforts and blocking tools. It will take everyone working together. Not just telephone companies, but companies across the broader tech ecosystem, including smartphone manufacturers and the companies who build the smartphone operating systems,” AT&T wrote.

Yes, it’s time for a lasting solution, one that will require collaboration between carriers, regulators, legislators, and consumers.

“A comprehensive solution will take cooperation by the entire ecosystem of stakeholders in the fight against robocalls – consumers, phone companies, regulators and Congress – to make a dent in the problem,” according to John Breyault of the National Consumers League.

Despite the challenges, I’m optimistic we can rise up and together find a solution to an issue that’s plagued consumers for decade. Let’s begin.

Debra Berlyn is the President of Consumer Policy Solutions and leads the Consumer Awareness Project; an effort dedicated to educating and informing consumers about communications issues.

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